Shara Lessley Interview

Interview #2:1 Shara Lessley

Shara Lessley, interviewed by Mariah Whelan

Mariah Whelan: In The Explosive Expert’s Wife, violence is threaded throughout the poems—from terrorism to small moments of self-violence necessary to get by as a woman. However, I also find the collection deeply optimistic. Connection manifests within the text, especially on the level of form, and the result is a profound exploration of the relationship between things—be it people or poems, ideas of love, intimacy. I’m thinking particularly of the resonance between work performed by the all-female de-mining crew in ‘In Jordan’s Northernmost Province’ and the emotional labour performed by the mother in ‘The Clinic Bomber’s Mother’. Do you think poetry is an inherently ‘connected’ creative form?

Sharah Lessley: When writing The Explosive Expert’s Wife, I always hoped that, despite their geographical or cultural distance, the women in the book might speak to each other. The guilt-driven, penitent ‛Clinic Bomber’s Mother’ to ‛The Accused Terrorist’s Wife,’ for example, or the ‛The Explosive Expert’s Wife’ to the misguided albeit well-intended ‛Predecessor’s Wife,’ whose advice about moving from Washington D.C. to Amman reveals less about life in Jordan and more about American prejudices and misguided ideas relating to the Middle East. It was very important for me to open the book with ‛In Jordan’s Northernmost Province,’ as the poem works against the Western habit of framing of Muslim women as passive and/or domestically restricted. By way of enjambment, the opening line—‛Women go down on their knees’—is ambiguous (purposely so). Are the women mid-prayer? Is their kneeling erotic? An act of subordination? None of these, the next line answers, unsettling our assumptions about the roles of gender and labor.

The women in ‛In Jordan’s Northernmost Province’—bravely, heroically, boldly—comb the earth to pull up land-mines planted decades prior, working in a mode similar to what the great Polish poet Szymborska suggests in ‛The End and the Beginning’: ‛After every war someone has to clean up.’ In a similar sense, The Explosive Expert’s Wife is very much a book about women who tidy up, who sacrifice and sustain, who risk themselves, who play supporting roles without much credit, who nurture and love regardless of what’s happening in the world around them. I’m pleased that you find the collection optimistic. I want The Explosive Expert’s Wife to resonate that way so that poems like ‛These Days’ (in which a rainstorm joyfully interrupts Jordanian children at play in a local park) and ‛Letter to Rania in Amman’ (a meditation on friendship) counter the book’s darker geopolitical tensions.

MW: Could you talk a little about writing poems and the idea of a recipient or audience?

SL: As for audience, I think I only retrospectively understand that, unlike with Two-Headed Nightingale, I was of two minds while writing The Explosive Expert’s Wife. Part of me felt as though the project was a love letter to Jordan, a country I profoundly miss and am grateful to have called home for three years, the place where both my children were born. As much as I love Amman, however, and the life my husband and I built there, I remain an outsider. I can never really claim, nor would I ever presume to, the country as my own.

It’s important to note that while much of The Explosive Expert’s Wife takes place in Jordan, the book is really about America; particularly, American attitudes and assumptions pertaining to the Middle East. It’s also a book about hypocrisy. My hope is that the last section, which features poems about the history of domestic terrorism in the United States (crimes mostly perpetuated by white men), helps complicate the way we, as Westerners, think about our relationship with violence, and how quickly and conveniently we tend to point the finger elsewhere. While drafting the final part of the book (poems like ‛No Joke,’ for example, which references the Oklahoma City Bombing, American Family Planning bomber, 16th St. Baptist Church, and so on), I was more mindful about the ways I wanted to direct the reader’s attention toward American violence in particular, as well as our habit of ignoring or erasing it.

Ultimately, the book ends with a poem about a wife longing for her absent husband, who is investigating a post-blast crime scene overseas. He pulls a single human hair from the IED’s remains, which prompts the speaker to turn from personal longing to empathy. Is the hair ‛His wife’s?’ she imagines—meaning either the person who constructed the bomb or the terrorist who detonated it— the ‛strand / so long, so thick, like a shiver unsettling // the darkness—’ So there you have the book’s primary tensions, I suppose (which circle back to your opening question about connectedness). The final gesture is one of violence and tenderness. Weaponized bodies and gender. The strand of hair, a thread that metaphorically connects women across differing places, circumstances, and time.        

MW: Reading The Explosive Expert’s Wife, there’s a kind of clarity that often emerges out of a sense of dislocation. Over the course of your writing career you’ve moved across the USA and the world. Could you talk a little about how these geographical relocations have informed your writing practice?

SL: Growing up in a small farming community in Central California, I was fascinated by place. From an early age, the complexities and contradictions throughout my hometown commanded my attention. Yet, I still had an eye elsewhere. I wanted to see things, go places, experience more—even though I didn’t know what ‛more’ meant. I’m a bit restless. Moving has its challenges (I’ve been consistently changing addresses since I was sixteen with the longest stint in any one place during my undergraduate years), but I like the possibility of discovery, the growth that stems from discomfort. I also appreciate difficulty, especially in places where I don’t speak the language.

Living overseas requires increased attentiveness and a presence of mind that’s not entirely unlike what I feel when I’m drafting a poem or essay. I’m forced to get out of my own habits and patterns, and to interrogate my assumptions and received ideas. Some cities or countries are better matches than others. Writing about place requires a great deal of responsibility, especially when you’re an outsider. To investigate the subject, the poet Bruce Snider and I recently co-edited an anthology of essays called The Poem’s Country: Place & Poetic Practice. The project started because over the last decade we began to notice a shift in the ways poets were seeing themselves in relation to place. For all of our virtual connection via the Internet, it seemed people were feeling increasingly isolated and divided—a tension we saw entering the writing.

We were also interested in how, in light of the current environmental crisis, writers were rendering various landscapes or reimaging the pastoral. Rather than embracing the traditional meditative lyric, many people we admired were writing with increased urgency in ways that interrogated their own subjectivity. We decided to invite a group of emerging to mid-career poets to share their thoughts. The result is The Poem’s Country: Place & Poetic Practice—an anthology of twenty-nine formally varied essays exploring the connection between lyrical and geographical constraint. The book includes entries on major cities, the landscape of memory, Ground Zero and Guantanamo Bay, the gay rural lyric, the ocean and archipelago as poetic, the U.S.-Mexico border, queer body, staying in Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home in Nova Scotia, Native erasure, and the imagined spaces of our own minds, among other topics. The Poem’s Country also includes an extensive list of place-based poems, many of which are available online. We think of that final section, as well as our contributors’ recommendations, as an ‛anthology within the anthology.’ Overall, I’m really proud of the project and learned a lot putting it together.   

MW: As a writer, you’ve developed your creative practice at The University of Maryland on their MFA program and completed a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University, as well as the Diane K. Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. A lot of our readers are emerging writers considering studying creative writing. Could you talk about the role formal study has played in your writing life? What’s the most important thing that’s helped you develop creatively?

SL: As time goes by, I’m less and less convinced that writing is a solitary act. Even as I sit by myself at the desk moving language around the page, or am left to my thoughts—dreaming up particular images or revising would-be lines—I’m never solitary. In other words, no matter the physical seclusion or seeming remoteness, I’m never far from remembered phrases, stanzas, snips of conversation or music, bits of feeling. Toward the end of my MFA program, which really benefited me in terms of mentorship, I began memorizing poems as a regular part of my practice: sometimes with concentrated effort; occasionally (to my surprise!) unintentionally, as the result of loving a piece of writing and rereading it for many years until I had it down word for word. Memorization is an act of intimacy. You think you understand or recognize the shape of a poem, but put the thing to memory and it begins to shape you.

Because of my husband’s work in foreign service, we move internationally every few years. The voices I carry with me are essential for my survival. No house feels like home until my books are unpacked. All of this is to say that reading, reflection, memorization, close study (whether formal or self-led), the act of drafting, publication and even rejection are small parts of a much larger ongoing conversation. My time at programs like University of Maryland, Stanford, Wisconsin, etc., ended, but the fellowship—in the word’s truest sense—goes on. I remain incredibly close with my Stegner cohort, as well as classmates from UMD, and writers from Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.  The friendships and camaraderie formed at those institutions sustain me, especially as an expat. What is poetry, after all, but a stay against our ongoing sense of isolation and alienation? I try to remind myself of this when the work gets tough, or insecurities creep in. Eavan Boland, my mentor at Stanford, suggests that the reader is the co-author of the poem. In this sense, the lyric isn’t a song sung by a solitary author, but a collaborative act that continues long after the poet steps away from the page. To answer your question more directly, one of the most important things that helps sustain me creatively is knowing that, no matter my fears or self-doubt, I’ll never be alone in poetry.